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The Bodhisattva Gautama (Buddha-to-be) undertaking extreme asceticism before his enlightenment.

Asceticism Across the Faiths: Many People in the Major World Religions Have Done it

Asceticism is a way of life marked by the voluntary abstinence from worldly pleasures. This way of life is most often associated with religion and spirituality, and its practitioners usually aim to achieve certain spiritual goals. Indeed, this lifestyle is observed (to some extent) by the adherents of various major world religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam. Nevertheless, there are also examples of asceticism being practiced for non-religious purposes, as seen, for instance, in certain philosophical traditions.

Basawan. ‘Jain Ascetic Walking Along a Riverbank.’ ca.1600. Cleveland Museum of Art. (Public Domain)

Basawan. ‘Jain Ascetic Walking Along a Riverbank.’ ca.1600. Cleveland Museum of Art. ( Public Domain )

Ascetic Athletes

The roots of the term ‘asceticism’ is found in the Greek word ‘askēsis’, which may be translated to mean ‘practice’, ‘training’, ‘exercise’, or more specifically, ‘athletic discipline’. This is a reference to the regiment that ancient Greek athletes would follow whilst preparing for physical contests. By abstaining from various physical pleasures, and by subjecting their bodies to difficult physical tests, these athletes were able to achieve the highest possible degree of physical fitness. It may be said that many professional athletes today also follow in the footsteps of their ancient Greek counterparts in this ascetic practice.

Discobolus. Marble, Roman copy after a bronze original of the 5th century BC. From the Villa Adriana near Tivoli, Italy. (Valerio Perticon/CC BY SA 3.0)

Discobolus. Marble, Roman copy after a bronze original of the 5th century BC. From the Villa Adriana near Tivoli, Italy. (Valerio Perticon/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

Christian Asceticism

This Greek concept later became a feature of early Christianity , as evident in the New Testament. The idea of asceticism was first used by Paul in his second letter to Timothy (2 Timothy 4:7), in which he famously compares keeping the Christian faith to both a fight and a race, clear references to the ancient Greek association of asceticism with athletics. The concept of asceticism continued to develop as time went by, and it became an important feature in Christian monasticism. Each monastic order observed asceticism to some degree, though some more than others. The Carthusians and Cistercians, for instance, are two Catholic monastic orders notable for their strict adherence of the ascetic way of life.

‘St Hugh of Grenoble in the Carthusian Refectory’ (1630-1635) by Francisco de Zurbarán. (Public Domain)

‘St Hugh of Grenoble in the Carthusian Refectory’ (1630-1635) by Francisco de Zurbarán. ( Public Domain )

Hindu and Buddhist Ascetics

Asceticism is not a unique Christian practice, as it is found also in various other world religions. For example, in Hinduism, holy men called sadhus are known for their extreme ascetic practices. These practices vary from one sect to another, and even from one sadhu to another. Hindu sadhus not only renounce worldly pleasures, but even subject their bodies to extreme mortification. One ascetic, for example, stared at the Sun until he went blind, whilst another held his hands above his head until they withered. It goes without saying that few are able to achieve such acts of extreme asceticism.

A sadhu by the Ghats on the Ganges, Varanasi. (CC BY 2.0)

A sadhu by the Ghats on the Ganges, Varanasi. ( CC BY 2.0 )

The Buddha also practiced extreme asceticism prior to achieving enlightenment. He eventually realized that this was not the way to Enlightenment, thus leading to his discovery of the Middle Way, a path that lies between the two extremes of self-denial and self-indulgence. Nevertheless, some level of asceticism was maintained in Buddhism.

A wall painting in a Laotian temple, depicting the Bodhisattva Gautama (Buddha-to-be) undertaking extreme ascetic practices before his enlightenment. A god is overseeing his striving and providing some spiritual protection. The five monks in the background are his future 'five first disciples', after Buddha attained Full Enlightenment. (Public Domain)

A wall painting in a Laotian temple, depicting the Bodhisattva Gautama (Buddha-to-be) undertaking extreme ascetic practices before his enlightenment. A god is overseeing his striving and providing some spiritual protection. The five monks in the background are his future 'five first disciples', after Buddha attained Full Enlightenment. ( Public Domain )

Like the Christian monastic orders, asceticism in Buddhism involved the renunciation of the world. The extent of this asceticism, however, differed between the two main Buddhist sects – the Mahayana and Theravada traditions. One of the beliefs held by the latter is that it is rather unlikely, even impossible, for a layperson to achieve Enlightenment. Therefore, the only way to achieve this goal is to renounce the world by joining a monastery. The Mahayana school, however, disagrees with this view, and therefore has a less ascetic character.

Islamic Asceticism

Asceticism is not limited to those who have taken religious vows. In Islam, for instance, Muslims are required to fast during the month of Ramadhan. They are not allowed to eat, drink, or have sexual relations between sunrise and sunset. Additionally, Muslims are also encouraged to read the entire Quran, and are expected to improve their spiritual lives.

Finally, it may be said that asceticism has been observed for non-religious purposes as well. As mentioned earlier, asceticism was, and still is, practiced by many athletes prior to competitions. In addition, asceticism has been promoted by certain philosophical traditions, such as Stoicism and Cynicism, as this was believed to allow their practitioners to gain mastery over their desires and passions.

‘A learned ascetic.’ (Public Domain)

‘A learned ascetic.’ ( Public Domain )

Top image: The Bodhisattva Gautama (Buddha-to-be) undertaking extreme asceticism before his enlightenment. Source: What-Buddha-Said

By Wu Mingren

References

Campbell, T., 1907. Asceticism. [Online]
Available at: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01767c.htm

Chumley, N. J., 2017. The Compelling Spiritual Discipline of Asceticism. [Online]
Available at: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/norris-j-chumley-phd/the-value-of-asceticism-t_b_806700.html?guccounter=1

New World Encyclopedia, 2016. Asceticism. [Online]
Available at: http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Asceticism

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2013. Asceticism. [Online]
Available at: https://www.britannica.com/topic/asceticism

www.philosophybasics.com, 2018. Asceticism. [Online]
Available at: https://www.philosophybasics.com/branch_asceticism.html

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